Adaptive Sneak Peek
Chapter 1: The Outside
I stopped counting after three hundred steps.
Minutes ticked by, each holding the weight of an hour.
The urge to catch one last glimpse of Tatum City tugged at me. I resisted, just barely. My eyes traveled instead to my current company. Broad shoulders, tree-trunk torso, and legs so much longer than mine. His moving frame prowled with a wild grace only the self-assured, or cocky, could manage. And underneath that tough exterior was an even tougher interior: impatient, calculating, competitive, ruthless . . .
“Keep up,” Ryker grumbled. His startling blue and black eyes narrowed on mine before they jerked forward again. “We have a lot of ground to cover. Bren has a solid two days’ head start.”
Rudeness was another quality of his.
If my tongue would cooperate, I’d grace my companion with a witty reply. But with that first step into the outside world, anxiety had gripped me. For eleven years, I’d been enclosed by walls. Too long. I had only ever wanted to feel freedom on my skin again. Now, the thought of unrestricted access to the entire world—and the world having access to me—sent paralyzing fear through my limbs.
I was out of my element, torn in two. My heart yearned to keep going while my brain reminded me of the dangers, of the safety the city offered. The city . . . safe? I held in a derisive snort.
Still, I might have turned around and begged the guards to let me back inside if it weren't for the dark-haired man in front of me who had strode through the gate and into the unknown with unwavering confidence.
I touched the twin daggers at my sides for the umpteenth time, casting a quick glance to the trees skirting the road. Any number of beasts could be in there, preparing to attack. Yet Ryker hadn’t drawn his weapons, so neither did I. Showing weakness was new to me. My muscles still tightened at the thought of another human seeing my flaws. My scars. With one exception. A certain big idiot with teasing, albeit piercing, gold eyes.
Who are you, Brendan Bearon?
I thought I’d known him. Just thinking of Bren’s large, gentle hands holding me close caused my heart to skip and my face to heat. I looked down, realizing I’d unconsciously pulled out the bear tooth necklace he’d given me. As a child, I’d been gravely wrong about him, then again as an adult. His mysterious dealings with Renold had cost me my freedom. Maybe my guardian had ordered Bren to toy with my affections, to screw up my one chance at winning Title of Choice. With an annoyed sigh, I shoved his image aside and hid the necklace once more.
How could I know him when I barely knew myself?
Then there was Ryker, another mystery. The only thing he and Bren had in common was their obsession with secrets. That and the Elite Trials. Both had wanted to win, but for what purpose? To become shallow, self-serving elitists? I had never found out, and now the reasons didn’t matter. We were all on the outside, traveling far away from Tatum City, the cage of lies.
The city couldn't offer a better life, no matter what Supreme Elite Tatum said. Instead, it took. It grabbed the best parts of a person and tore them apart, leaving a greedy, bloodthirsty corpse behind. Those who didn’t conform, who openly opposed the rules, disappeared. To this day, I didn't know what happened to them. With Renold’s penchant for torture, I could imagine something painful.
It’s all that remains of them, he’d taunted only hours ago after I’d opened the velvet box containing two severed thumbs.
The simple seamstress and hairdresser, who I’d known for eleven years to be nothing but loyal, had paid the price for my one intentional act of rebellion. Which I now regretted. Did they suffer? My brain refused to dwell on the possibilities, denied that they were . . .
A shiver raced down my spine, shaking my shoulders. I wouldn’t think of what had happened to them, especially when I was feeling halfway unhinged. I picked up the pace in an attempt to distract myself from thoughts of my guardian and his sadistic ways. His control over me was stronger than ever now that he’d discovered another weakness of mine: my friends. If I didn’t finish this mission and return, he would punish those I cared about, maybe even kill them.
I couldn't live with that, especially after reading Bren’s cryptic yet all-too-clear message.
She is your sister.
I should have seen it. The physical similarities. My gut hadn’t warned me. Now, she was alone in a swarm of trainees and trainers, some who had a vendetta against me. Lars, in particular. Maybe he’d start hazing her again without me or Bren there to protect her. I grimaced as the prickling sensation at the base of my neck urged me to look toward the city once more.
But I didn’t give in. Not a single wall or cage stopped my forward progress. My mum was out here, waiting for me to find her. For a moment, I debated taking my freedom and abandoning my mission.
And yet . . .
Stars, what kind of person would I be if I left my sister in the hands of that monster?
Deep in my brooding, I didn't realize Ryker had stopped until it was too late. I plowed into him. More like bounced off, actually. Ow. I gently touched the bridge of my nose where it had collided with the leather quiver strapped to his back. His head whipped around. “You really have a bad habit of running into me. For having won all three Trials, you're rather inept on your feet. How you survived is beyond me.”
My jaw dropped and I blinked, slowly. Did he just call me a klutz? I sputtered out a laugh. "Well, that just goes to show how much you know. I didn't win all three Trials. If I had, I’d be far away from here by now.” Oops. Maybe I should have left out that last part.
His eyes narrowed. “You did win. It was an unfair ruling.” My brows inched upward. That was the last thing I’d expected him to say. Noticing my look, he fully faced me. His voice was little more than a growl as he said, “And before you get any funny ideas, I am loyal to Supreme Elite Tatum. You'd better be too if you know what's good for you.”
When I didn't reply, he moved his gaze to the ground. He crouched, touching an indent in the snow-covered road.
“What is it?” I squinted for a closer look.
Ryker stood, glancing to the north and shaking his head. “It's our target’s footprint. He headed north, toward the old city.”
I sighed. “Can we just agree on one thing? Our target is a person and he has a name—Bren. Let's use it from now on, okay?” He remained silent. Great. “Oh, and one more thing,” I continued. “Why did Renold want you with me on this mission?
If he deviates from it, I want you to kill him, was the very last order given to me. Did Renold think me incapable of following through with my mission if Bren failed to follow his? Was Ryker meant to complete the job, to kill Bren, if I couldn’t?
He started walking again, this time due north. My patience stretched thin, and I had to bite my tongue to keep a torrent of snarky words at bay. Finally, he said, “My orders are to track Bren and keep you alive. Apparently, Supreme Elite Tatum doesn't think you're capable of doing either on your own.”
Even as I gaped at how accurate my guess had been, a growl formed in the back of my throat, nearly choking me.
You’re pure reaction, Lune. It’s incredible.
My jaw hardened as I tried to block out Renold’s parting words. Get a grip, idiot, you're stronger than this! Nobody can get a reaction out of you unless you let them. Renold couldn't be right about me. I wasn't reactive. I could control myself. Really. My blunt nails dug into my scar-roughened palms. I barely felt the pricks of pain.
My shorter legs sped up until I drew even with Ryker. I tried not to glare as I replied, “If you recall, I beat you in the Rasa Rowe Trial. I think I'm quite capable of taking care of myself.”
He snorted as if I’d said something childish. “You trained and competed in a controlled environment. Out here, there are no rules, no walls, no roof over your head to keep you dry. If the beasts don't get you, the people will; and if they don't finish you, nature will. It'll pick you apart, piece by piece, until only your ashes remain. You'll be begging me to return you to Tatum City by the end of the day.”
His words both chilled my bones and heated my blood. He didn't know me at all. I snorted in return. “I give you permission to punch me in the face if you hear me begging to head back. I’ll follow through with this mission, and only then will I return. Can I count on you to do the same?”
A grim smile formed on his lips. “You don't have to worry about me. I'll do what needs to be done.”
Well, that wasn't ominous or anything.
We passed the next few miles in silence, the light dusting of snow turning into a steady fall. Soon, the ground was completely covered in a thin white layer of fluff, erasing any sign of boot prints—to my eyes, anyway. Ryker kept up the pace, gaze straight ahead, unwavering in his northern path.
How did he know where to go? I decided to ask. “How—?” He whipped a hand toward me, his fingers wrapping around my shoulder and digging in uncomfortably. My first reaction was to dislodge the threat. I grabbed his wrist and ducked underneath. He spun before I could jack up his arm behind him, and a second later, I found myself staring up at a cloud-filled sky, lungs burning as they tried and failed to suck in oxygen.
Angry blue eyes hovered above me, blocking my view of the falling snow. “What was that?” he hissed, then jerked his head to the side, peering at the line of trees next to the road. “Never mind, we have bigger problems. We're being watched.”
My heart fluttered as I flicked a glance at the dense woods. “By what?”
“More like by whom. They've been following us since we left Tatum City, no doubt trying to decide if we hold anything of worth. If they don't relent soon, we’ll need to shake them off our trail or confront them.”
I didn't know how he knew that people were following us, but my burning curiosity would have to wait. “I'd prefer we not confront them if it can be avoided. Do you know how many there are?”
He paused, tilting his head like a dog. “At least two. Maybe three. Probably male. We have to get off this road, come on.” He didn't bother offering me a hand up, already making for the tree line east of the road. Rude. Just plain rude.
My spine groaned as I stood, not happy with the way it had been slammed onto frozen ground. As I entered the dense woods, Ryker was nowhere to be seen. This teamwork thing was not going well. Doing my best to follow his fading footprints in the snow, I almost shrieked when a hand materialized out of thin air and pulled me behind a tree.
I knocked the hand aside and grabbed the front of Ryker’s coat, jerking him toward me. “Don’t touch me,” I softly growled. “You might find yourself missing a limb next time you do.”
He watched me coolly. “That makes two of us.” His eyes shifted to my fingers still gripping his coat. I released it. “But if I have to touch you to keep you alive, I will.”
My lips pursed as I smothered my need to have the last word. Control. Control your impulses.
Ticking his head in a follow me gesture, he slunk farther east, then crouched behind a fallen log. I joined him, unsure what the next move was. Several minutes dragged by. Nothing happened. I noticed the snow barely dusted the forest floor this far in. Pine needles and dead leaves covered the ground instead. Maybe our pursuers couldn't track us in here and had given up.
I leaned toward Ryker. “I think we—”
In the next instant, he exploded from our hiding position, his loaded bow aimed at a spot to the left of us. “Don't move,” he snarled at something I couldn't see. I squinted into the gloom created by the thick, towering trees. A shape slowly emerged—a man, hands raised to show he was unarmed.
“Easy there, fella,” he said in a drawling accent. “I'm not here to hurt you. I couldn't help but notice you two came from the walled city. It's not often people leave there. I thought maybe you could tell me a little bit about what it's like in there, hmm? It's such a curiosity, you know.”
I could see the man fully now. Maybe mid-thirties. It was hard to tell, what with the heavy beard masking his features. There was an odd twinkle in his murky brown eyes. I didn’t trust him. Apparently, Ryker didn't either, his fingers tightening on the bow. His voice was deep and gritty as he slowly ground out, “I said don't move.”
The man sighed, lowering his hands, then flicked a glance over Ryker’s shoulder. Warning bells rang in my head a second before my companion violently shoved me. I fell, my skull bouncing off the ground before I could catch myself. Bright lights obscured my vision but I managed to roll over, pulling a throwing knife from my belt in the process. The bearded man was closing in fast, a hunter’s knife in his grimy hand, the tip aimed for Ryker's unprotected back.
I didn't hesitate to throw my knife. The blade glinted through the air before sinking into the man’s thigh. He screamed and clutched his leg as he toppled over. I swiveled, looking for more threats. Behind me was another man, crumpled in a heap with an arrow sticking out of his chest. I wrenched my gaze away, fighting a ball of nausea in my gut.
Ryker advanced on the injured bearded man, an arrow aimed at his head. I scrambled to my feet, unsure if I wanted to interfere. Would he kill him? One look at Ryker’s murderous expression and I knew he would. I carefully laid a hand on his arm.
“Don't,” I warned.
He shook off my touch. Addressing the man, he asked, “Are there more of you?”
The man sneered, his only reply a spray of spittle. Thank the stars, it didn't reach us. Ryker lunged and stomped on the man’s ankle. Bone cracked and he shrieked. I gritted my teeth, forcing myself not to say anything. “I'll ask you one more time,” Ryker said, his voice smooth, like the calm before a storm. “Are there others?”
“No!” the man spat, panting in agony. His eyes shifted to the right.
“He's lying. There are more.” I inspected our surroundings again. That's when I saw the shiny glint of metal spiraling through the air, straight for my head. I jerked out of its path, but not before steel sliced into my neck. I swiped at the cut and sticky wetness coated my fingers. My hand came away red with blood.
Injured already? Ugh.
Ryker pivoted, searching for my attacker. We saw him at the same time. My eyes widened as Ryker prepared to shoot.
“No!” I grabbed for his wrist and foiled his aim. The arrow sailed harmlessly through the woods. I watched as my attacker took off, quickly disappearing from sight. A deep growl rumbled beside me and I froze, goosebumps pricking my skin. I peered into blazing pale blue eyes.
I willed my hand to stop trembling as I pointed a finger at Ryker. “First, you sound like a dog when you do that. Second, he was just a boy, barely a teenager. He didn't deserve to die.”
He batted my finger away and stepped into my personal space. Warm breath hit my cheek as he snapped, “He almost killed you. Ever heard of self-preservation? If you don't stick up for yourself in this world, you'll be buried and forgotten before you know what’s hit you.”
I refused to back down, giving him a glare of my own. “I think your memory may be failing you. Just two weeks ago, I survived all three Trials. I even killed.” I held in a wince at that, pushing back the guilt threatening to pull me under. “But where does it stop? Should we keep killing until humanity’s wiped from this planet?”
He stepped back. “Sometimes I think this world would be a better place without us humans in it.”
I blinked, weighing his words. Maybe he was right, but that wasn't the solution.
We both spun at a shuffling noise behind us. The bearded man was trying to sneak away, half crawling, dragging his wounded leg behind him. “Stop,” Ryker barked, aiming an arrow at his chest.
The man stilled and held his hands up once again. “I'm no harm to you. It was just the three of us, no more.”
“He's telling the truth,” I murmured, flicking a glance at Ryker’s white-knuckled grip. “We should let him go.”
Muddy brown eyes briefly met mine, confused and calculating, before returning to the deadly arrow tip. “Your girl is smart. Maybe you should listen to her. Besides, I realize now that I made a mistake. I didn't see your tattoo earlier. That makes us—”
His last word ended in a wet gurgle. He clutched at the arrow lodged in his neck with fear-filled eyes. I stared as blood spurted from the new wound, for a moment not comprehending. Then I whipped my head toward Ryker. The first thing I noted was his calm, almost bored expression. Then I saw his unloaded bow.
My blood pumped hot and heavy, rage flooding me at the casual way he’d ended a life. I knew that the bearded man would bleed out in seconds, the arrow having pierced an artery. Surging forward, I shoved Ryker’s chest. Not expecting my attack, he stumbled. His feet tangled in a tree root and he fell with a thud.
“Why?” I shouted as I kicked his leg. His grunt of pain sent adrenaline coursing through my veins. Yes, feel the pain, you cold-hearted murderer. “He was defenseless. Why did you kill him?” I kicked at him again, but this time, he was ready for it.
He grabbed my boot and yanked. My other foot slid out from underneath me. My tailbone took the brunt of the fall and I stilled as sharp rods of pain raced up my spine. Crap, that hurt. He was up and out of kicking range before I could refill my lungs.
With crossed arms, he glared down at me like I was a pesky gnat that wouldn’t go away. He waited a beat, probably making sure I wouldn't attack him again. I arched a brow and placed one leg over the other as if settling in for a nap. Blowing out a breath, he held my accusatory gaze. “Here's what you need to know before you judge me: I was raised out here up until two years ago. You learn pretty fast that you can't trust anybody, especially the ones who stalk you through the woods.”
His words struck a chord deep inside me. They reminded me of my first encounter with the Recruiter Clan eleven years ago. With Bren. Too bad I had been stupid and naive back then, my only thought on gaining a friend.
Ryker continued, jabbing a finger at the two dead bodies. “These men would have stolen our belongings at the very least. Killed us at the very most.” His eyes narrowed on mine, darkening. “Then again, there are worse things than death.”
My mind blanked. No, I wouldn't think about what could have happened if we'd been caught unaware. I might not make it through this mission, otherwise.
“So why couldn't you have just left him? He was injured and alone. There's no way he could have pursued us farther.”
Ryker laughed humorlessly, shaking his head. “He's part of a larger group. The one you let get away will seek help. Soon, this place will be crawling with people bent on vengeance, and we don't need anyone describing our faces to them—namely mine. That's why he had to die, and that's why we have to leave. Right now. Let's go.”
He repositioned his backpack and bow and stalked off through the woods, once again not bothering to see if I followed. My body remained frozen with indecision. Briefly glancing at the bodies, I steeled my spine, knowing there was no way I could bury them. Hopefully Ryker was right and their people would find them.
Goosebumps skittered down my arms.
Was I really going to follow a murderer?
He was unleashed. Wildly unpredictable. Not much different than the mutated beasts that I feared. Maybe I should grow a healthy fear of him as well. What if I got in his way and he decided to kill me next?
Chapter 2: The Strong Survive
My neck wouldn't stop bleeding.
I really needed to clean the cut but could barely keep up with Ryker’s long strides as it was. We were traveling north again, this time off-road. Normally, I was steady on my feet, but with a hand pressed to my wound and tree roots hidden beneath the thin blanket of snow, I kept tripping.
Ryker stopped abruptly. I watched warily as his hands formed tight fists. Finally, I caught up with him and stood several feet away, just in case. I never knew what to expect of him, so a cautionary distance was a smart idea.
“Take care of your cut,” he said. What? I didn't think he’d noticed. “Do it quickly before an animal smells the blood or more of those men find us. We’re still in their territory.”
A retort was at the tip of my tongue, but it vanished when my brain latched onto that last word. Territory. I unstrapped my backpack and rummaged around for the first aid kit. I hadn’t expected to be needing it this soon. “Whose territory?”
I didn’t think he’d reply, too busy chewing a hangnail on his thumb. But he muttered, “The Recruiter Clan.”
My blood ran cold. They were here? So close to Tatum City? I supposed it made sense since they worked for Renold, but . . .
The kit almost flew from my grasp as my trembling fingers ripped the top open. Several tries later, I managed to secure a bandage, then shoved the kit into my pack in record time. “Done. Let’s go.” I stood and began marching north. Ryker didn’t follow. I whirled and barked, “What?”
He remained still. Staring at me. Studying. Heat crept up my neck at the bold perusal. “They said you were tough,” he finally replied. Was this his version of small talk?
“I guess it depends on your definition of tough,” I replied, sarcasm leaking into my tone.
“They also said you were weak,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “And I’m inclined to agree. You can’t be strong without first being smart, and it was a stupid move not to clean your cut before bandaging it. Now, do it again the right way.”
He just called me weak. And stupid.
I felt a shift inside of me, a spark that ignited whenever someone dared call me such things. Without the weight of Tatum City on my shoulders, I let the inferno build. Imagined fire bursting from my eyes, hurtling toward Ryker and burning him to cinders. His remains scattered over the snow. How was that for weak?
I blinked only to find the rude man still standing. Alive and whole. With a thump, my backpack hit the ground and I bent over it, seeking out the kit once more. I’m going to flay and roast him. With my teeth tightly clenched, I jabbed rubbing alcohol into the wound. Then I’ll feed him to the wild animals.
After that, we traveled in complete silence. The rural landscape—whites and browns and emerald greens—gradually gave way to more and more buildings, mostly pale gray and crumbling. Deserted. Some were taller than Tatum House. The structures were eerie, missing their doors and windows. Creepier still were the large, once-colorful words looping across the exteriors. The sprawling script looked angry, as if warning us away. But their spellings made little sense to me.
From the dark interiors, anything—or anyone—could be watching.
Exposed. We were too exposed.
All was silent except for two pairs of boots crunching on snow. The road was uneven where roots pushed apart the broken asphalt. Then there were the abandoned cars. Some were positioned in the middle of the street. When the Silent War happened, the one that destroyed the majority of life a century ago, the cars’ owners had probably died right then and there. Every time we passed by one, I quickly peered through its broken windows, expecting to see a skeleton inside. My hands itched, desperate to hold my twin daggers or bow.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Ryker.
He whipped his head around, pinning me with a glare. We both stopped. And had a stare down. I'm not looking away first, buddy. After several seconds, he slowly exhaled through his nose and closed his eyes, as if I were the most annoying person on the planet and he couldn't believe his bad luck at getting stuck with me. Ha! At least I won the staring contest.
His reply came out hushed; I had to lean forward to catch all the words. “Rule number one out here: don't go looking for other people. If someone approaches you, find a place to hide until they leave. Most people live in groups, and if you stumble on the wrong one, well . . .” He snorted. “Use your imagination.”
I stifled the urge to roll my eyes. He sounded just like my mum, spouting off cryptic rules. And then a thought zapped me. “Isn’t Renold going to be mad that you killed members of the Recruiter Clan? They work for him after all.”
A deep crease bisected his heavy brows. “It doesn’t work that way out here. The strong survive. He has no use for the weak.” For a split second, I could have sworn blue fire flashed in his eyes, then it was gone. He dragged a hand through his short-cropped hair. “Stay close. It's easy to get lost in this rat-maze city. And don't speak. We don't want any curious—or hostile—visitors.” With that, he continued down the street.
I stared at his back. Then stuck out my tongue. He was so bossy. His head turned around yet again and I quickly pulled my tongue in. Those piercing eyes narrowed on my face. Did he catch me mocking him? My brow arched as I dared him to chastise me. He jerked his chin once, ordering me to follow, then strode off.
Two hotheads traveling together through dangerous territory. Nothing disastrous about that combination. No, not at all.
Minutes ticked by, then Ryker veered right, taking us in a northeasterly direction. Did he have a compass inside his head? I was chewing a hole in my cheek in my quest to keep silent. Questions burned on the tip of my tongue, like how he knew where to go. I couldn't see a single footprint in the snow except ours.
I needed a break soon. My stomach growled, reminding me that it hadn't been fed since early morning. And then I’d thrown everything up when Renold had given me that blue box. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the image of thumbs rolling across cement to dissipate before I threw up again. My lashes fluttered as I searched for the sun but only found a wall of puffy gray clouds laden with snow. It was mid-afternoon, I guessed.
We weren't making good time. Ryker wove in odd crisscross patterns, sometimes circling around buildings before heading north again. I remained quiet, his dogged little shadow. If Renold wanted him on this mission, then I would put up with him.
But if he showed any signs of going rabid wolf on me, I would put him down.
Another half hour trudged by. With every step, my bladder reminded me of its fullness while my stomach reminded me of its emptiness. I opened my mouth to call for a break but no sound came. Warmth pricked my cheeks. For some reason, I was too embarrassed to tell Ryker that I needed to pee.
I cursed my stupidity. We would know all about each other's daily habits in no time, but I didn't want to be the first to admit basic human needs. Ugh. This was so idiotic.
Taking a deep breath, I charged off the path. A large stretch of land opened up, baring dozens of cars positioned in neat rows. I skirted around them instead of cutting through, still creeped out at the thought of skeletons lurking inside. To the left was a long, flat building with several gaping doors devoid of glass. I walked along the windowless side, making for a dense patch of foliage in the back.
The perfect place to relieve my aching bladder.
Just as I waded through the first bush, a guttural voice practically thundered in my ear, “What are you doing?”
In less than a second, my daggers were in my hands, aiming for Ryker. We both froze, eyes locked as the blades pressed against his throat in an X, one of them grazing his black moon and claw tattoo. With my heart tripping wildly, I said, “Let’s get one thing perfectly straight: never sneak up on me.”
At the threat, Ryker gave me a bored look as if I were holding dull butter knives to his neck. “I’ll ask again: what are you doing? Because it looks a lot like you’re trying to ditch me and I would heavily advise against that.”
“I have to pee, you nosy pervert. And why can’t I ditch you? Sounds like a solid plan to me. Thanks for the tip.”
His lips curled into what could be called a smile. It was scary, whatever it was. “Because I’m your ticket back inside Tatum City, that’s why. And I hear there’s someone you left behind.”
Had he listened in on my last conversation with Renold? Rage stole over me and I growled. His answering snarl almost made me wet myself.
With his face mere inches from mine, I could see his eyes swirling like storm clouds. We stayed like that, seething through bared teeth, forever. In reality, it wasn’t more than half a minute, but it felt like time had decided to stop. Lucky me.
Finally, the words almost indecipherable, he ground out, “You scared of me?”
“No,” was my immediate reply. Yet my heart flapped like a trapped bird.
He leaned into the blades and whispered, “You should be.”
With a casual glance at the deadly knives digging into his throat, he pulled away and strode back toward the road. As he turned the building’s corner, I heard him say, “You have three minutes. If you're not back by then, I'm coming in after you.”
That was so not going to happen.
I took off through the brush, still clutching my daggers in case I ran into something more unpleasant than Ryker—if that was possible. He did scare me, I begrudgingly admitted to myself. He had predatory eyes and they were currently fixated on me.
An ache pulsed over my heart and I rubbed at the spot with my knuckles. I had become so used to Bren watching my back. Now, I was alone and vulnerable. I missed him. His teasing grin, the way he watched me—not like a predator, but like he’d found something special he didn’t want to lose. No. No. He couldn’t be trusted. Who knew what his mission was and to what ends he’d go to complete it?
And . . .
I might have to kill him.
Focus. Focus, you idiot. If you lose sight of your mission, you’ll never see Iris again.
In record time, I finished emptying my bladder. There was no way I’d let Ryker catch me with my pants down. I buttoned them, then dug into my pack for food, unwrapping a chunk of bread. After shoving the bread partway into my mouth, I grabbed my two daggers that I’d stuck into the ground while squatting.
Keep your weapons close. Even closer when you're awkwardly peeing in the woods.
Then I heard a twig snap.
Silently pressing my back to the nearest tree, I listened for further movement. Was that Ryker? Had he been spying on me? A blend of anger and humiliation churned in my gut, hot and nauseating. Not a good combination. He would pay for this. I was going to make this mission impossible—
An animalistic growl from behind me sent goosebumps springing over my body. Nope, not Ryker. I was fairly certain of it. I peered around the tree and caught sight of a massive tan paw. Holding in a squeak, I hid behind the trunk once more.
No, no, anything but that.
A saber cat.
I hadn’t seen the rest of the body, but I couldn’t imagine what else it could be.
Of their own volition, my fingers sheathed the daggers and unslung my bow. Old habits. Instinct. Thank the stars. I had never fought a beast with my knives before. Smarter to stick with what I knew. I waited for the inevitable claw of fear to take hold. There it was, climbing up my throat, settling right behind my tongue. I couldn't swallow, let alone speak. I could barely breathe past the bread still wedged between my teeth.
My hands shook as I prepared to shoot the mystery animal. Would one arrow be enough? Scurrying paws headed in my direction. No, I’m not ready! I leapt into the open, prepared to shoot, but the beast was already too close. A furry beige blur. It jumped. Paws as big as my head landed on my chest, and the heavy weight bowled me over backward.
The force of the landing ripped my breath away. I widened my eyes, horrified as sharp teeth descended. The canines should be much longer though. The animal—maybe not a saber cat after all—went for my jugular and I was too shocked to move. I heard the tearing of my fragile flesh as . . .
Wait. It was biting into my bread.
I tried shoving the animal’s chest, but it was determined, tugging at the food as my head thrashed side to side. Enraged, muffled growls left my throat as I struggled to push the massive form off me and claim the remaining bit of bread.
In the midst of the chaos, some insane corner of my mind bellowed, Foul beast! No one takes my food! My boot lashed out and caught it in the belly. The animal snarled, baring dozens of pointy teeth.
Stars help me.
“Give it to him.”
I froze. So did the beast. One of its black ears swiveled toward the sound of Ryker’s calm voice. Why wasn't he shooting it? Didn't he see that I was about to become a meal?
“Give him the bread. He's just hungry.”
What! Is he serious right now? Yes, the beast wants to feast on my flesh!
As my heart beat out of my chest, I slowly lifted a hand to my mouth. The beast zeroed in on the movement and I waited for its dark maw to chomp down on my fingers. Nothing happened. The animal waited, its yellow eyes filled with hunger and keen intelligence. I pinched the last of the bread between two fingers and offered up the morsel.
Before I could so much as twitch, the food was snatched away. Pressure eased from my chest as the beast stepped to the side, devouring my lunch. I finally took my first full breath. Air shuddered out of me as I realized how close I'd just come to death.
“You injured?” Ryker asked, still looking far too relaxed. He didn’t even have his bow ready.
I shook my head. Though, I had no idea because I couldn’t feel my limbs. What had just happened? How was I still alive?
He was staring at the beast now, so I did too. It was a . . . dog. A huge one. A mangy one. But still a dog. I wanted to slap my forehead. Then bury myself. What had Ryker thought of my reaction? He better not say anything.
He whistled and the dog’s head snapped up.
“Are you crazy?” I hissed, and slowly rose to my feet in case he came back for seconds. The animal watched us, ears pricked forward as it finished the bread. From a distance, I noted the paws were more the size of my hands, not my face. I didn't recognize the breed. “What kind of dog is it?”
“Probably a mutt. Looks like a mix of German Shepherd and Alaskan Malamute. Maybe some wolf.”
“Why is it not attacking us?”
Ryker shrugged. “I'm guessing he's someone’s pet. Or used to be. He could have run away from the Recruiter Clan. Can’t blame him.”
“You seem to know a lot about dogs. Did you used to have one?”
I was surprised when his eyes shuttered, as if he were reliving a terrible memory. He cleared his throat, wiping away the dark expression. The abrupt noise startled the mutt and he danced farther into the woods, then peeked at Ryker from behind a tree.
“We should go. Nightfall is in less than two hours.” With a last glance at the dog, he took off in the opposite direction.
Question and answer time was over. I must have struck a nerve. Did tough guy Ryker Jones have a weak spot for puppies? Nervous laughter pushed at my throat but I didn’t let it out. I had a gut feeling that if I poked fun at him, I'd end up slow-roasting on a spit for dinner.
Chapter 3: The Old City
We were practically jogging as the gray sky darkened.
Ryker’s earlier swagger was gone, and he carried his bow now. We flitted from building to building, sticking to the narrow passes in between and ducking beneath the black windows. It was almost as if he was scared. Well, crap. If Tattoo Boy was afraid, then maybe I should be worried. I touched my daggers’ cold hilts, their solidness reassuring.
We should be stopping soon and setting up camp, but he showed no signs of slowing. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. “Shouldn’t we stop for the night? The temperature is dropping and visibility is getting low.”
Without comment, he rounded a red brick building. I followed, only to find him hunkered down behind a large, faded blue metal box. I sneered at the stupid color that reminded me of the Tatums, but crouched next to him. When I looked at his face, he was glaring at me. Nothing unusual there. “What did I say about talking?” he hissed. I could tell he wanted to yell instead.
“That you think I do it really well?” In reply, his jaw clenched. Ugh, he has no sense of humor. I refused to answer his bossy question. “By the sound of things, we’re the only two souls passing through this city. What is there to be afraid of?”
He snorted softly. “Everything. This city comes alive at night. The last place we want to be is within the city’s borders when its occupants crawl out of their holes.”
Icy goosebumps rippled down my legs.
“If it’s so dangerous, then why are we here? Why not skirt around it?”
“Because Bren came through here.”
At the sound of Bren’s name, my heart decided to skip a few beats. I ignored the feeling as best I could, focusing instead on the skepticism building in my gut. “How do you know?”
“I’m tracking him,” he answered, an impatient edge creeping into his voice. Huh. He must not like being questioned.
“Is he leaving a special trail only trackers can see?” I snarked. Because I still hadn’t spotted any signs of him.
“Something like that,” Ryker said evasively.
My eyes narrowed. “How did you get so good at tracking?”
“How did you get so good at being annoying?”
Oh. Short temper. I curled my lips into a fake smile. “Everyone’s got to have a hobby, right?”
His teeth ground together, like he was restraining them from ripping into me. A long sigh fled his nose. “You—”
“What deal did you make with Renold? What’s in it for you?” I prepared myself for the inevitable brush-off. No one wanted to reveal their secret plans with the devil.
He laughed drily. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.” And on that cryptic note, he peered around the metal box and tensed, as if listening to noises I couldn’t hear. “The city’s northeast border is two miles away,” he said, his voice extra low. “Beyond that, there’s a two-story white house that backs up to the woods. Our destination. If we get separated, meet me there. It’s on Orchard Street.”
“Separated?” I whisper-yelled. But he didn’t respond, already up and moving. My heart thumped double time. Something strange was going on with this city if we were taking these precautions. And how on earth would I find Orchard Street?
Ryker made a soft chirping noise. He gestured at me to join him. I did, squinting through the growing gloom as something stirred in the shadows across the snow-dusted street. I strained to see what it was. Ryker tapped my shoulder and I immediately stiffened, whipping my gaze to his.
My breath hitched at the sight of his irises, almost glowing in their intensity. He pressed a finger to his lips and I nodded my understanding. Pointing at me, then up the street, he waggled two of his fingers and mimicked running legs. I frowned and shook my head, carefully backing up a step.
No way was I darting out into the exposed street with an unknown thing lurking in the shadows nearby.
Ryker bared his teeth and buried a fist in my coat. I almost squeaked in shock as he hauled me to the edge of the brick building. My stomach roiled a warning. Danger. He latched onto my arms, positioning me in front of him. I ached to ram an elbow into his gut and hide behind the blue box once more. “Northeast.” His words were barely a wisp of air. “Two miles. White house.”
I fiercely shook my head again even as I searched the street for signs of life. None. Only the shifting shadow across from us.
A sound like breaking glass burst the silence and I flinched. “Go,” Ryker breathed. What? Blood roared in my ears. He couldn’t be serious. “Now!”
With a not-so-helpful nudge, he forced me into the open. Just as I was about to whirl around and demand we stick together, the shadow thing stilled. Adrenaline zinged through me. I bolted. Not back to Ryker, but down the street. My trembling legs pumped as fast as they could while encased in heavy boots and carrying an even heavier backpack. I couldn’t tell if I was being followed. My breaths and footfalls were peals of thunder. Too loud. Death tolls. I glanced behind me only to see a figure dart into the street.
It wasn’t Ryker.
Air seized in my lungs. My instincts went haywire. Run. No, hide. Run. Hide! I kept running. And then the street ended and I wanted to pass out from panic. Left or right? Left or right! I went left. Northeast. Two miles. Don’t forget. Don’t forget. Don’t look back. Don’t look . . .
I looked back.
Another figure joined the first and, with a loud whoop, gave chase. Stars, help me!
It was the cackling noise that did me in. It sounded too much like Lars, and the thought of people like him out here, unimpeded by rules, scared me to death. I darted into a doorless building and was immediately doused in darkness. Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea. Ice coated my insides as I lurched forward, following through with my bad decision. Too late to turn around. The cackling drew closer. Glass crunched under my leather boots and I grimaced, trying to lighten my tread.
Blood thumped painfully in my skull. I quickly sucked in a breath, then another. The ache lessened. I bumped into a metal structure, maybe shelves, and latched on, using my hands to guide me along the cold length. All too soon, I came to the end. Beyond, nothing but dead air.
Then I realized the cackling and pounding of feet had stopped. I held my breath again, listening. Silence. Utterly . . .
I ducked behind the shelves and squeezed the bottom one until my fingers ached. Two human silhouettes framed the building’s entrance, blocking my only way out. Trapped. I was trapped. Oh stars.
“You sure he went in here?” a deep male voice asked.
“Of course I’m sure,” a tenor male voice snapped in reply, then cackled. “What, you don’t trust me?”
“I trust that you’d dump rat poop into my food, Skervvy.”
A man—I assumed Skervvy—guffawed. “Oh, ye of little imagination. I’d slip strychnine in your water. Much more entertaining.”
“You’re sick, Skerv dog. Now stop your yammering and find our target.”
The taller, skinnier man gave a dog-like yip, then slunk forward, glass grinding under his shoes. He sucked in a lengthy inhale. “Oh man, Thane. This one’s fresh! Smells like snow and . . . flowers? Maybe apple blossoms. Do you think . . . ?” He hooted. “It’s a girl, I’m sure of it! I get credit this time. You got the last one.”
Thane, the stockier of the two, snorted, then shuffled farther into the darkness. “Doesn’t work that way, dog. Whoever presents her to the boss gets the reward.”
“Do you think she escaped?”
“What? No. You think one of those weak little slips could best one of us?”
“Hey, never underestimate determination and the wily ways of women.”
Thane grumbled in agreement.
Something struck the metal shelving I still gripped; the friction jolted through my fingers. I curled into a tighter ball and slowly drew my right dagger. How could he smell me? I cursed myself for indulging in a hot, scented bath this morning. Had it only been a handful of hours since I’d mourned my fate of being stuck inside Tatum City? And now . . .
No. Despite the dangers, I was still glad to be outside of those toxic walls. The men were arguing in earnest now, their playful banter replaced with vile threats.
“I’m warning you, man. I know where you get your water.”
“I swear, if you touch my water supply, Skervvy, I’ll cut off your—”
“Shh! Did you hear that?”
Silence. Painful, ear-splitting silence.
Cackling laughter made me jump. “She’s scared out of her mind. Her heart is hammering like a wee rabbit’s.”
More silence. I willed my heart to stop beating.
“Left. Toward the back.”
“Divide and conquer?”
My heart jack-knifed in my chest.
“Divide and conquer,” Skervvy agreed. “But she’s mine, man. Fair is fair. I sniffed her out.”
“We’ll see,” was the only reply as, to my left, Thane crept into the gloom and out of sight.
The faintly glowing and now unobstructed exit beckoned as the men descended, slowly yet surely boxing me in. But maybe I was faster than them. Maybe I could slip down the middle and bolt through the door and . . . and . . .
The wait was killing me. Now. Go now! I jumped up and hurtled for the front end of the building, hoping, pleading for a stroke of luck. For a—
A heavy weight tackled me to the floor. Pain zipped through my knees and hand as I braced against the fall. I whipped my dagger back and felt the blade connect. A man screamed—I didn’t know which one. “She’s armed!”
I jerked an elbow into his face. He reared back, cursing up a storm, and I wriggled free. On my feet again, I staggered away, all of my focus on that patch of dying light. Almost there. Almost there. Almost—
From the left, hands shoved me. I collided with the metal shelves, and the world tipped. No, the structure was tipping. No, no, no! Gravity pulled me down. As heavy metal crashed with a resounding clang, my body bounced off the shelves. I wheezed in air, momentarily stunned. My coat had cushioned the impact, but I knew my ribs would be sporting a new bruise.
A set of hands—no doubt Thane’s—grasped my backpack and yanked me upright. I clenched my teeth against the pain and brought my dagger up, but he whirled us around before I could thrust it in his face. He was behind me now, tightly gripping both my arms. Rage stole over me, heat flaring up and down my body.
“Drop the weapon, missy, or I’ll have to hurt you,” he purred in my ear, like he would enjoy doing so.
I stared at that patch of freedom, so close yet so far away, and let the dagger slip through my fingers. It clattered at my feet.
“Good. Now, don’t mind me,” he said, wrenching my arms back and gripping both wrists with one large hand, “but I’ll need to search you for more weapons.” And I let him. I remained perfectly still as his meaty paw, brazen and groping, trailed down my front. I didn’t twitch a muscle as that hand traveled down, down, brushing my thigh. As his chest pressed up against my backpack, as his breath stirred my hair . . .
My skull plowed into his nose with a sickening crunch. Thane shrieked and staggered back, dropping my wrists. I scooped up my dagger, then charged for the exit. Just five more steps. Four. Three. Two. A sharp bite of pain lanced through my calf and I stumbled out of the building.
I didn’t stop to check the injury. As I veered left down the deserted street, Skervvy’s voice rang out in an eerie sing-song, “I know your scent, girly! You can’t hide from me for long. I’ll find you!” His cackling laughter was the last thing I heard.
* * *
The night was pitch black. No sign of the moon.
If it weren’t for the snow, I’d be walking blind. The faintly illuminated ground allowed me to pick my way through the city without smashing my head into buildings. Hours. It took me hours to reach the northeast borderline. Ryker had been right: the city came alive at night. On occasion, I’d see an orange flickering ball. I learned to avoid them at all costs. Black shapes hovered over those orange flames like bugs around a lightbulb.
More than once, a pop pop pop noise would rend the air. It had been over eleven years since I’d last heard that sound, but there was no mistaking the gunshots. I had briefly stopped to check on my wound—Skervvy had nicked my calf with a blade—but I didn’t bandage the cut. I couldn’t. The crazed man’s final words batted at my mind and spurred me onward. I’ll find you! I believed him.
Now, I stared with uncertainty at a rural stretch of weathered houses. I figured the faded green signs with words on them were street names, but I couldn’t recall which one Ryker had told me to find. My heart sank. Besides, I could barely read, never having received more than a seven-year-old’s rudimentary knowledge of spelling. Longer, complex words tripped me up. I was lost and the air was frigid. A headache had bloomed behind my eyes from all the chattering my teeth were doing.
Maybe this was my chance to be free of Ryker. He’d probably get me killed anyway. He had shoved me at those up-to-no-good hoodlums and then took off for who-knew-where. Somehow, I had to track Bren on my own. I would find him, convince him to complete his mission, then head back to Tatum City. To Iris, my sister. I couldn’t let Renold have her. He would destroy her. She wasn’t like me, raging and fighting to break free of injustice. Iris was soft-spoken and gentle. Meek. She wouldn’t survive his torture techniques.
Resolve filled me. It warmed my insides, giving me the boost of strength I needed to turn from the row of houses and—
I came face to face with Ryker. His glaring eyes startled me so badly, a squeak slipped past my lips. He clamped a hand over my mouth too late. I flung his hand away, snarling, “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
His gaze narrowed even more, running along the length of me. I fought the urge to cross my arms. Those unnerving eyes latched onto my wounded leg before returning to my face. “Where were you going?”
I gestured at the houses. “I forgot which street the white house was on.” Better to admit that than my altered mission of excluding him.
“No, you were turning away. You were going to ditch me.”
“So what if I was? You’re the one who ditched me earlier.”
He forced out a clipped sigh before reaching into his pocket. I stiffened, instinctively grasping my daggers’ hilts. “I didn’t ditch you. It was a test. And you failed.”
Before I could see what he pulled out of his pocket, before I could make sense of the determined look on his face, a jolt of white hot agony streaked up my spine. It speared through my neck and bounced around in my skull. My body locked. Shook. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t move. The sensation was like being struck by lightning. Like being zapped with . . .
My eyes rolled upward against my wishes. Helpless. I was helpless as my body lost control. Helpless as I tipped sideways, as I fell. Down, down . . . But I didn’t smack into the snow.
No. Ryker caught me.
Then all went black.
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